Soon after Luis Enrique arrived at Roma, he was given the nickname Zichichi after the white-haired professor and expert in the field of nuclear physics, Antonino Zichichi. It was probably down to the iPad he wielded at training. “There isn’t anything nasty or sarcastic about it,” the club’s general manager Franco Baldini insisted. “Actually I perceive a deep admiration for a coach who lives football as though it were a science.”
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Sceptics remain, of course. Rome is its own universe, and precisely for that reason, the city has its own rules of relativity. The local media sees itself as a Large Hadron Collider, scrutinizing every particle, no matter how small, and often blowing their findings out of proportion. The reaction to the latest result of Enrique’s ‘experiment’, another 2-1 defeat to Lazio in the Derby della Capitale, has called everything into question again.
Reduced to 10 men after eight minutes when goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg was harshly sent off for bringing down Miroslav Klose in the penalty area, it was all uphill from there for Roma. Hernanes made no mistake from the spot, punishing Lazio’s cugini just as he had done in the first meeting of the season in October when Simon Kjaer had also given a costly penalty away before receiving a red card for a misjudged challenge on Cristian Brocchi.
The game looked over before it began. Birthday boy wonder Erik Lamela was sacrificed for stand-in `keeper Bogdan Lobont, and though Roma got back into things through the irrepressible Fabio Borini, whose eighth goal in his last 11 league games was also his team’s equalizer, Lazio weren’t about to let their numerical advantage go to waste. Their winner, quite gratingly, came from a free-kick. Cristian Ledesma’s delivery caught Roma’s defense napping, and Stefano Mauri slid in to angle the ball home.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve this [s—],” Enrique shrugged after the final whistle. “I’d like to play one derby with 11 men.” Yet too often this season, Roma have only had themselves to blame in this regard. They’ve been down to 10, nine and even eight men at times and have the worst disciplinary record in Serie A with eight expulsions.
Sure, they’ve been the victims of some poor refereeing decisions this season, and there is a grain of truth in Rodrigo Taddei’s claim that his team are a soft touch (in part because of the club’s adoption of an admirable policy of not criticizing match officials). But then again, a lot of it is self-inflicted and can be ascribed either to ill-discipline or players getting themselves into avoidable situations and making lamentable mistakes.
Sunday’s loss, which incidentally was Roma’s fifth in their last 10 games and their second in a row, really hurt their pride. It burned that little bit deeper because not since the 1997-98 season had Lazio, then coached by Sven-Göran Eriksson, managed to do the ‘double’ over their rivals in Serie A. This was supposed to be Roma’s ‘last train’ to a third place finish and qualification for the Champions League. They’d missed it, as Lazio, the occupants of that spot, pulled 10 points into the distance.
The mood in the camp was understandably quite low at training on Monday. “It’s a glum afternoon,” revealed Roma director of sport Walter Sabatini. “There’s a lot of mortification among the players. The situation is negative with the injuries [to Juan and Miralem Pjanic], the suspensions [of Pablo Daniel Osvaldo], and in terms of morale. I saw that Enrique was also a little down. For the first time, he said to me: ‘I’d have liked to have won the derby even by playing badly.”
La Gazzetta dello Sport decided to take this as a sign that Roma’s revolution is now in retreat. Some went even further. Maybe a little bit too far. Parallels were drawn between Enrique and Andre Villas-Boas, arguing that their reputations as the next Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho didn’t mean they’d necessarily go on and emulate their success. “Writing a novel about a self-loathing Jew isn’t enough to make you the next Philip Roth,” wrote La Repubblica.
It’s worth persisting with the Enrique and Villas-Boas comparison. Both arrived with a ‘project’. Both sought to change the philosophy and style of their new club. Both, to varying degrees, have reportedly had their authority challenged in the dressing room.
The principal difference is backing. When whistles rang out at Roma’s elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Slovan Bratislava, Baldini and Sabatini called for patience and reminded the fans that Enrique is building something and that it will take time. They soon came around, showing an uncharacteristic tolerance, later unfurling a banner with the words “Never slaves to the result” in the Curva Sud.
When Francesco Totti turned up for training after that Bratislava game wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan “Enough” printed on it (supposedly in protest at his treatment under Enrique), Baldini and Sabatini quickly stepped in again. They very publically told the club captain “to let the manager go about his work calmly” and “put aside any vanity to help the group, otherwise his situation risks killing the team.” Totti has since come around, too.
There are other examples, such as Roma expressing its support of Enrique in enforcing his own ethical code, which has seen the club ban Osvaldo for a dressing room scuffle with Lamela and punish Daniele De Rossi for being late to a team meeting. It cost results in both cases, but to some extent the price was worth paying to ensure Enrique was respected.
Did Chelsea ever do anything similar to strengthen Villas-Boas’s position at the club? Of course they did not. His ‘project’ didn’t so much fail, as it never really had a chance. The conditions required for it to succeed simply didn’t exist. That’s not the case at Roma where faith in Enrique is unreserved and the outlook is long-term.
“We’re happy with our coach and the attitude of the team,” Baldini said on Sunday. “No one expected that with this squad we could aspire to much more than this. We wanted to create a foundation and to have a gradual progression over the next few years.” It’s hard to imagine Bruce Buck or Ron Gourlay ever coming out to say the same thing on Villas-Boas’s behalf during his eight months at Stamford Bridge.
Indeed the only prospect of Roma parting ways with Enrique would be if he were to walk away at the end of the season. In some respects, that reflects well on the club, because if it were to happen, one suspects that potential successors – maybe even Villas-Boas – might think at least they’d be given an opportunity to bring whatever plans they had to fruition.
In the meantime, things are likely to get harder before they become any easier for Roma, but the club remains unmoved. It wasn’t so long ago that the team won five matches in a row and Enrique was offered an extension, which he politely declined, telling the suits upstairs that he didn’t feel he had earned it yet. At least, he knows he’ll get a chance to do so for the foreseeable future, starting on Saturday night away to Palermo.